For the better part of a decade, the authors were part of the Washington scene, as a White House senior policy adviser, Assistant Education Secretary, consultant to Federal agencies, and commissioner of a leading international grant-making agency. They became more aware than ever of the need for a straightforward guide to the language of power, a tool to provide access to the terminology used every day inside the Beltway.
The aim of The Talk of Washington was to be comprehensive but not exhaustive. In selecting the 1,500 terms for this volume's word list, the authors eliminated hundreds of potential entries on the grounds that some words and phrases were either too specialized or too common or were available in other special dictionaries. They created a balanced selection that would enable readers to explore the worlds of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. There is jargon used by the foreign affairs and military establishments as well as the domestic agency bureaucracies. To reveal the totality of the Capital scene, the book includes terms used by lobbyists and the media. Finally, in a category that presented difficult selection challenges, the authors chose to “flavor” their lexicographic stew with some spicy slang drawn from ordinary Beltway speech, in cases where a term has become a key part of the D.C. vocabulary or else has been especially adapted to the linguistic conventions of power. Another factor influencing these selections was the belief that an open discussion of prejudices is the best way of getting rid of them.
How authoritative is The Talk of Washington? Where appropriate, the authors relayed on the advice of Washington-based professionals in economics, diplomacy, regulation, law, national security, and other fields in validating terms so they could employ the soundest information available. Ultimately, they listened to and read the lexicon of those in authority, in and out of government, and allowed their language to be our measure.
In reading The Talk of Washington, you will find that most of the 1,500 terms on the word list fall into one of five broad categories. First, there are the abundant acronyms, the alphabet soup of Federal agencies, including familiar ones — C.IA., F.B.I., FED, — and the not-so-familiar but still important: FEMA, G.O.J., N.SA., O.E.O.B., U.S.G. From inside these and other agencies pour out the formal language of Federal power, what we call technical talk: appropriation, balance of payments, comparable worth, hardened, insurgency, passback, rescission, sole source, and supergrade. Less formal are the many slang terms or Washingtonese, unofficial and often odd-sounding words and phrases heard virtually nowhere else: ballistic, borked, bum bag, murder board, rollout, short list, schmooze, spin doctor, zero-out — terms whose very usage helps define who is and is not a Washington Insider. Then, there are the ever-present euphemisms, tepid bureaucratic substitutions for the plain truth, where vague and often innocent sounding words disguise a more blunt appraisal: ambitious, building a record, cleaning house, courageous, full and frank discussion, least less developed countries, and mental health day. Lastly, there is the eerie category of common words with new and unexpected meanings, terms that people outside the Beltway could scarcely imagine would be used in such ways.